Haiyan, Climate Change Denial, & Lear

Benjamin West, "King Lear in the Storm"

Benjamin West, “King Lear in the Storm”

Today, in response to the horrific typhoon in the Philippines, I think back to a post I wrote two and a half years ago about whether literature can offer a satisfactory response to such a disaster. On one level, of course, it can’t. Paraphrasing Theseus in Midsummer Night’s Dream, even the best of literature is but a shadow when it comes to real life tragedy.

Yet in that post I quoted New York Times blogger Sam Tanenhaus noting that “one of the enduring paradoxes of great apocalyptic writing is that it consoles even as it alarms.” Simply by attaching powerful words to the event, however inadequate those words may be, provides a kind of comfort.

I referenced King Lear in that post and anticipated a time when I would turn to his famous Act III, scene II soliloquy. Typhoon Haiyan, which is among the strongest and deadliest typhoons ever, calls for it. Here is Lear in his madness:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, an germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!

And then, after the fool begs that they go inside—“here’s a night pities neither wise man of fool”—Lear cries out,

Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!

King Lear does more than give us words for a natural disaster, however. It also gives us insight into how denial functions, and denial is definitely at work in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan. Even while climate scientists see the increasing frequency of extreme weather events as evidence that carbon emissions are threatening the planet, America’s right wing is pulling a King Lear and seeing only what it wants to see.

King Lear has plenty of warning about the family storm that will erupt if he divides his kingdom amongst his three daughters. But the loyal Kent, when he speaks truth to power, is banished. Here’s their interchange:

Lear: The bow is bent and drawn; make from the shaft.

Earl of Kent. Let it fall rather, though the fork invade
The region of my heart! Be Kent unmannerly 

When Lear is mad. What wouldst thou do, old man? 

Think’st thou that duty shall have dread to speak 

When power to flattery bows? To plainness honour’s bound 

When majesty falls to folly. Reverse thy doom;
And in thy best consideration check 

This hideous rashness.

I believe that Lear reacts as badly as he does because he knows, deep down, that Kent is right. His fury stems in part from his anger and his panic that he can’t order the world as he would like. This panic may be shared by many on America’s right as well. Deep down, they know that climate change is a fact but are hoping that, by pure bluster, they can halt the rising tides. Their anger is fueled by their fear.

And there’s also another dimension to the crisis. A number of Tea Party figures actually are fueled by disaster, just as Lear is energized by the storm. That’s because, as a recent Daily Beast article notes, many of the most popular Tea Party figures believe in the End Times:

[T]he real energy, the animating force for the movement comes from evangelicals, of whom Ted Cruz, Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin are the most strident. These are the modern-day ”apocalyptic prophets.”

Although the issues are secular, the prophets’ anti-Obamacare rhetoric rings with religious, end-times cadences.

After citing disturbing quotations by several politicians, the article observes,

For these apocalyptic prophets, the issues aren’t even political anymore; they’re existential, with Obamacare serving as the avatar for all evil. In this construct, any compromise whatsoever leads to damnation, and therefore the righteous ends justify any means.

What such a vision means is that, when things blow up, their vision is confirmed. In a sense, like Lear, they welcome and are energized by disaster, whether Oklahoma tornadoes, Newtown shootings, Hurricane Sandy devastation. They have a framework for understanding catastrophe.

Then again, maybe, like Lear, they’re just throwing temper tantrums

The rest of us, however, can’t let them get away with such behavior. I appeal to GOP moderates to stand as strong as Kent and say, in ringing voices, “See better, Lear.” The future of the world is at stake.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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